We are getting into the days when hearty casseroles and warm cheesy things are starting to sound like a good idea again; my absolute favorite time of year. Put this casserole on your list — it's a veggie-filled riff on baked mac and cheese. It doesn't require a roux or even much prep at all, beyond cooking the pasta. This cheesy pasta bake also hits that sweet spot of comfort food that has enough redeeming nutritional qualities to justify having it both for dinner and lunch the next day.
This "lighter" baked macaroni and cheese casserole relies on a combination of cottage cheese, sour cream, and shredded cheese for its creamy base. This somewhat surprising combo is one I've been using for years, ever since discovering it in Heidi Swanson's recipe for mushroom casserole on her blog, 101 Cookbooks. I love this sauce because it requires zero stovetop cooking or fussing with a roux to make béchamel, and it's just as creamy and satisfying. If you're not a fan of cottage cheese or even (gasp!) sour cream, never fear — everything melts together into one deliciously cheesy sauce.
I've made this casserole with both whole- and low-fat versions of cottage cheese and sour cream, and honestly, I couldn't tell much of a difference. If you're looking to shave a few more calories off this dish, low-fat dairy is definitely an option. Just stay away from nonfat versions — they'll work, but you can definitely tell that the dish is lacking some essential awesomeness.
The only thing that needs cooking before throwing this casserole in the oven is the pasta. You can also assemble the whole shebang the evening or the morning before and put it in the oven when you walk in the door (just extend the initial, covered cooking time by about 15 minutes). This casserole can also be frozen, uncooked or cooked; just cook the pasta very al dente so it doesn't get mushy.
Are you craving this yet? I hope so. I can't wait for dinner tonight.
Baked Macaroni & Cheese with Spinach & Red Peppers
12 ounces macaroni (2 1/2 cups dry macaroni)
12 to 16 ounces baby spinach (7 to 8 large handfuls)
2 large eggs
2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 1/2 cups cottage cheese
3/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon salt
2 (12-ounce) jars roasted red peppers, drained and diced
Fresh pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish with nonstick coating.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water generously and add the macaroni. Cook the pasta until it's just barely al dente — a little bit of chew is fine here. Drain and immediately transfer the hot pasta to a large mixing bowl.
Add the spinach and toss to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dinner plate and let the spinach wilt in the heat of the pasta for about 10 minutes. Shake the bowl occasionally to mix up the pasta and spinach — some of the spinach might not completely wilt; this is fine.
Whisk the eggs until well-combined, then whisk in 2 cups of the cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, and salt. Pour the egg mixture over the pasta and wilted spinach. Add the diced red peppers and gently stir until combined and all the ingredients are evenly coated with sauce.
Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish. Cover tightly with foil. At this point, the casserole can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before baking.
Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over the top of the casserole. Bake, uncovered, for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the cheese has melted and you can hear the casserole bubbling. (If baking straight from the fridge, extend the covered baking time to 45 minutes.)
Let the casserole cool for a few minutes before serving. Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to a week.
- Substitute low-fat (1% or 2%) cottage cheese and sour cream if desired. Nonfat substitutes can also be used, but the casserole will be looser.
To freeze: The entire casserole can be frozen, baked or unbaked, but cook the pasta very al dente so it doesn't get mushy. Warm baked casseroles in the microwave or a low oven until warmed through. Cook unbaked casseroles straight from the freezer for an hour, then uncover, top with cheese, and continue baking until bubbly.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)